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John Updike in Couples Titillated America, Infuriated his Neighbors

In 1968, John Updike blew the cover off a rich-living, raucous little group of people in Ipswich, Mass. with the publication of his novel, Couples, a graphic and salacious book about the couples of Tarbox, Mass. who had made sex the central focus of their lives.

John UpdikeThe idea of a new hedonism fascinated America – a country where the combination of birth control pills and antibiotics had eliminated the unwanted side effects of sex, leaving behind only the moral and mental consequences to be dealt with.

Updike plunged in, with a story about a modern utopia founded by couples who were set on the idea of leaving behind the stodginess of their parents. He gave America a look at these upper-middle-class elites through their dinner party conversations and bedroom squabbles. He showed how they neglected their children. And, most shockingly, how they made swapping spouses in the bedroom a regular part of their lives.

Sex sells, at least in the case of Couples, and the book put Updike on the cover of Time Magazine in an article about “The Adulterous Society.” His racy, provocative new work spent more than 30 weeks on the best seller list, and was hugely popular, except in the small town of Ipswich where Updike lived.

Many of Updike’s friends and acquaintances provided the raw material from which the author shaped the characters of Tarbox. The problem was, everyone knew Updike, and they knew the people he knew.

His characters, Piet the serial-adulterer and contractor; Foxy, the housewife who drinks and smokes her way through pregnancy; and all of the 10-couple cast who cavort through the book were a little too similar to the residents of Ipswich for their liking.

The characters who weren’t obviously based on someone quickly lead to a game of speculation. Who was who? Were they composites, made up of parts of multiple members of Updike’s social circle?

Updike, who was himself a former columnist to the local newspaper, tried his hand at damage control, sending a letter to the newspaper flatly denying that Tarbox was Ipswich. But no one was buying it.

While politeness prevented much outright discussion of who was who, many in Updike’s circle fumed that the author had included their adventures in his work, partly because they didn’t want their behaviors known and partly because he had spoiled their fun.

In the end, Updike found it convenient to head off on a European trip and move out of Ipswich altogether to the tonier environs of nearby Beverly Farms. But he would continue to visit Ipswich throughout his life, lunching at one of the downtown clubs and avoiding the scowls from some residents that would follow him until he died.

Today Ipswich is more sanguine about their former, famous novelist resident. But in 1968, the name Updike was not spoken of kindly in many of the bedrooms in town. If you want a copy of Updike's 1968 best seller, please visit our bookstore.